Tuesday, 29 April 2014 09:46
The Half-Guarded Truth
By: Mike Coughlin
The Moments That Define MMA
Not much of what happens within a single game or even season really matters, to say nothing of how few instances within a sport’s entire history are truly important. But those times when something special does take place go to defining the sport itself: Babe Ruth “calls his shot,” Lou Gehrig declares himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth, Michael Jordan sinks a game winner that crushes the Cavaliers, and Maradona scores with the help of the Hand of God. These events are part of the myth-building process at the heart of each sport’s legacy. Repeat something often enough and it becomes true - even if it maybe never happened, ala Ruth’s home-run, or maybe if it wasn’t nearly as important as we remember (Jordan’s shot was in a first round series).
I’m going to do this with MMA. I’m going to ultimately fail - because it will never be complete and because it will leave off your favorite moment. This is not a list of what should be the most important moments and fights that every fan should know. Like Jordan’s and Ruth’s “Shots,” the story of a sport need be digestible and so fine details give way to broad strokes. This is a scrap book of memories of half-naked men hitting each other, one made not by your grandmother but rather that cousin who un-ironically says “bro.”
They are in no particular order.
George St. Pierre begs for a title shot
There may be nothing that so captures the modern UFC: a victory by one of its greatest and most popular fighters, who is then literally on his knees begging of Dana White. If you don’t like White, this is the image on your creepy dartboard (Wait? Why are you throwing darts at GSP?). So iconic is this scene that it has been repeated time and again by lesser fighters, with diminishing returns. There was a simple honesty that comes from the non-native speaker trying to get out the necessary English to beg for something he’d actually earned. Oh, and it worked too. St. Pierre got that title shot, won the belt, and never lost until he eventually retired. (ooooor he had to next fight BJ Penn, then win the belt, then he lost it, before regaining it. But then he never lost again. Hey, Jordan didn’t win a championship with his shot either.)
Randy Couture punches Tim Sylvia in the face
Couture was 800 years old and retired from fighting when the UFC asked him to fight one of the saddest
champions men in the company’s human history: Tim Sylvia. The referee says fight, Couture walks across the cage and just up and punches the lumbering slug in the jaw, felling him like David slew Goliath. Everyone in Ohio (of all places) cheered and screamed and yelled and realized there was a God and He actually did care about grown men hitting each other because that was the best explanation for why something so happy was allowed to happen. Couture would win and then defend the belt a dozen times, well into his fifties, before losing to Brock Lesnar. He finally rode off into the sunset never again to be seen. (Or, fought a few more random fights before he and the UFC brass got into a pissing contest and now he’s persona non grata #2 - #1 is on this list too, don’t worry.)
Frank Shamrock wipes blood off his face and struts around the cage
See, here’s #1: Frank Shamrock. Boxing has the “rope-a-dope” and MMA has this - Tito’s also an idiot, so it fits. In defending his Light Heavyweight title, Shamrock knew he couldn’t straight up beat the bigger, stronger, and better wrestler in Ortiz. So, Frank gambled on the one thing in his favor: cardio. He sacrificed rounds knowing that every little movement he made required Ortiz to burn precious energy. On the score cards, be they the actual cards or ones invented after the fact that use a 37 point scoring system no one can follow but trust us it’s better, Shamrock was losing. THEN: Shamrock sensed his moment, exploded with energy, battered Ortiz, landing elbows and hammer-fists to the head until Big John stopped it with ten seconds left in the round. Ortiz lost a fight that for nineteen minutes he’d been winning. Shamrock then wiped blood from his forehead, held his hands in victory, and walked a walk that let everyone know: I was the smartest man in the cage. (Note: Zuffa Media Policy dictates that this fight never happened. The UFC does not acknowledge the existence of one Frank Shamrock.)
Royce Gracie wins the first UFC tournament, beating every style of martial art
On one night, in November of 1993, Royce Gracie beat a boxer, a karate man, a sumo, and a street fighter, and then he tapped out Ken Shamrock in the main-event of the first ever UFC tournament. Yes, the records books may say differently, that Shamrock was the semi-finals, that Gracie only fought three times that night, and some other nonsense, but … is that what really happened? After all, the first UFC proved that Gracie Jiu-Jitsu was so effective that it could beat any style of martial art and that the smaller Royce could similarly beat any man, no matter his size. Royce and Ken were the two biggest stars to emerge from that first tournament so of course they met in the finals. Ask casual fans of the sport and they’ll tell you this is what happened. And it was divine intervention that beat England.
Helio Gracie throws in the towel for Royce Gracie
This one definitely happened. The Gracie legend grew over the years, including in Japan, where the first family of fighting (which would look good on a t-shirt) had an unparalleled legacy. Those modern Gracies never lost a fight. Ever. Royce never lost one. Ryan never lost one. Royler never lost one. Renzo never lost one. Until Sakuraba: the Japanese pro wrestler who could actually fight and along the way became one of the best fighters on earth after beating the likes of Carlos Newton and Vitor Belfort and I italicize this for emphasis but he was so awesome and is my hero. Sakuraba beat Royler Gracie, tossing him around, kicking him, humiliating him, until he finally locked in a shoulder-lock known as a kimura. The referee stopped it (even though he wasn’t supposed to because the Gracies had special rules where a referee wasn’t allowed to stop a fight and in retrospect IT IS REALLY INSANE THAT ANYONE WOULD AGREE TO THOSE TERMS but: Japan!). Not only had a Gracie lost but he lost to a Japanese. This was a pretty big deal.
Wait. Go back several decades. Before the UFC. Before Pride. Before Japan as we know it was a country (well, it was a country, it just had less neon). Before everything, there was a famous vale tudo fight in Brazil between the now patriarch Helio Gracie and a Japanese bad-ass named Kimura. (Vale tudo is internet for “mixed martial arts but I sound special using the two words of Portuguese I know.”) In that fight, Kimura beat the crap out of Gracie before eventually locking in a shoulder-lock that we now know as a - wait for it - kimura. (Also: how awesome are you that someone names a submission hold after you? There’s no “Mr. Triangle Choke” out there.)
Come back now and not only had a Gracie lost, but he lost to a Japanese fighter in the exact same manner as before. The Gracies had like fifty years to learn a defense. Oops. So, Royce was called upon to rescue his family’s honor … and to make himself a lot of money. And, for all the talk amongst the MMA community that the one dimensional Gracies had been passed by modern fighters who cross trained and were athletic, the Brazilian clan always had a simple retort: our style works best with no time limit. This is a neat trick because no one would ever have a fight with no time limit, because that’s crazy, and so the Gracie legacy would always be safe. Except: Japan. Thus, even though it was the first fight of a one-night, eight-man tournament, Royce and Sakuraba fought without time limits. For. Ninety. **&%$#-ing Minutes. While both men were pacing themselves, as time wore on, Gracie’s strategy of do nothing and try not to get KO’d and let the other guy wear himself out wasn’t as effective as Sakuraba’s strategy of punch and kick Royce a lot. With Royce sitting on his stool, unable to stand, Helio Gracie threw in the towel. (It may have been Rorion, but Helio was there and it’s so much better if it’s him throwing it in.) Sakuraba had forced not just Royce but the entire Gracie family to collectively admit defeat.
Randleman reveals Fedor to be a robot
Stoic Russian Fighter isn’t anything new. It’s the plot of most action films from the 1980s, including the greatest Rocky ever. Fedor beating everyone without a show of emotion played to type; violent fury contrasted with disinterested “celebration.” Then Kevin Randleman murdered Fedor in front of tens of thousands of people. No, not figuratively - he literally ended Fedor’s life. He grabbed the Russian champion from behind and threw him with a German suplex that had so much murderous intent that Randleman himself was airborne for most of the move. Up Fedor went and down he came, not on his back, but straight on his head. Randleman himself seemed unsure of what to do next. Surely, killing someone was enough for a referee’s stoppage. But: Japan. Seconds later, Fedor bucked Randleman over, locked in a kimura, and got the submission victory. He then stood up and looked around as if he’d read about an interesting article on emerging markets in South-East Asia. It was Arnold’s face melting away to reveal a metal skeleton (all references to bad-assery come from 80s movies). In hindsight, none of this seems fair to Randleman.
Gabriel Gonzaga decapitates Mirko CroCop
CroCop makes his debut in the UFC after years of doing one thing: kicking people in the head. Gonzaga was a slow moving target with an enormous skull that begged to be kicked. The result was a foregone conclusion: round one, kick to the head: right foot hospital, left foot cemetery. Start digging the grave. And that’s what happened. It was just Gonzaga delivering the kick. It may rightfully be called the greatest knock out in the history of the sport.
Matt Hughes slams people
Lumping together two moments into one entry is cheating - but there also aren’t rules since I’m making this all up as I go along.
First: Hughes challenging Carlos Newton for the welterweight title. Second round and Newton locks in a triangle choke (named after the aforementioned “Mr. Triangle Choke”). Hughes defends it by doing what someone who possesses farm-boy strength and is getting choked instinctively does: lifts up Newton, walks him around, and slams him. Down goes Newton. Out goes Newton. Maybe out goes Hughes from the choke. A befuddled and dazed Hughes looks around until someone tells him that he won. It’s rare to win a world championship while unconscious.
Second: Frank Trigg hits Hughes in the balls. Not on purpose - presumably - but the ref doesn’t see it and doesn’t stop the fight and so Trigg takes advantage. He swarms the champ and punches him, and hits him, and elbows him, and beats on him, and tries but fails to choke him. Hughes escapes, turns into Trigg, and while starting on the ground, lifts the ball-kicker above his head, rises, runs across the cage, and slams him to the mat. Then Hughes punches him, and hits him, and elbows him, and beats on him, aaaaaand secures the choke. Hughes was conscious for this win.
Anthony Pettis does That Kick
Anthony Pettis ran up the side of the cage with less than a minute to go in the fifth round of a fight that was even and kicked Ben Henderson in the head, winning the WEC title, and forever assuring himself a place atop every single highlight video of all time. You will never do anything this cool in your life.
Anderson Silva actually loses - and then loses again
Final moment(s), because all lists have to eventually end. Simple enough: the most dominant and longest reigning champion in UFC history not only loses but does so while in the midst of his trademark show-boating which directly led to his getting hit with a boulder-like punch delivered by Chris Weidman. I watched this in Vegas at a closed-circuit location. I saw people actually hugging and running around and screaming and high-fiving each other. It wasn’t that Silva was some reviled figure, just that everyone in that room knew they’d just seen history. People hug when they see history.
That is followed up five months later as the two rematched - because that’s what you do because duh. Mid-way through the second round, Silva throws a kick. Weidman checks it. This has happened thousands of times in violent fighting history. Only this time, as Silva pulled his leg back, where there was once one shin bone there were now two. Not a hairline fracture, but a full cracking in two of Silva’s shin. And with that, the greatest fighter many had ever known, a man to be forever remembered for his violent artistry inside the cage, lay on the ground clutching at his leg. So terrifying was the scene that the immediate thoughts were not of his losing but of his health and long-term well-being. He walks now, and trains, and kicks things, and may even fight again, but for that moment, everyone saw was the end of a man as he had once been. His gifts shattered. His future broken. All that remained was a man alone amidst a sea of thousands: weeping.
Mike Coughlin hosts FIVE STAR RADIO. He cries in the shower.